Will coronavirus testing before holidays become the norm in Germany?

Will coronavirus testing before holidays become the norm in Germany?
A woman being tested for coronavirus in Oelde, NRW, after the outbreak at Tönnies meat factory. Photo: DPA
Holidaymakers from high risk coronavirus areas are only welcome in some federal states if they can present a negative test result. We looked into how that works, and if it's sustainable.

This week two districts in Germany – affecting around 600,000 people – went into lockdown again for the first time since coronavirus restrictions eased throughout the country.

In Gütersloh and Warendorf, North Rhine-Westphalia, authorities imposed a lockdown due to a huge outbreak at the Tönnies meat processing plant in the Gütersloh district. More than 2,000 people are confirmed to have Covid-19, and thousands are in quarantine.

EXPLAINED: What you need to know about Germany's new local coronavirus lockdowns

Due to localised outbreaks, other regions in Germany are also close to reaching the critical limit of 50 new infections per 100,000 inhabitants within seven days.

Authorities say that if this number is exceeded, measures against further spread of the virus have to be put in place.

Several federal states have established rules for travellers coming from places with an increased incidence of infection.

Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria and Lower Saxony, for example, say they will not take bookings for accommodation from anyone from Gütersloh.

In Schleswig-Holstein, travellers from affected regions have to stay in quarantine for two weeks if they travel to the region. In Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, holidaymakers from risk areas are not allowed to enter the state, and people from Gütersloh have even been asked to leave in some regions.

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Exceptions are only made if the affected holidaymakers can present a negative coronavirus test that is no older than 48 hours. But even a negative test is not a free ticket. 

How reliable are the tests?

There are several test procedures that can detect either an acute or a survived infection with the coronavirus Sars-CoV-2. The 48-hour rule refers mainly to PCR tests that can indicate whether someone is infected at the moment of sampling. The procedure involves detecting the genetic material of the virus in the laboratory.

However, even a negative result does not completely rule out infection, reported Spiegel.

  • The virus can only be detected by a throat or nasal swab at a specific time of infection. If someone has just become infected, the viruses may not have multiplied sufficiently to be detected
  • According to a study in the journal “Annals of Internal Medicine”, PCR tests do not work reliably if symptoms have not yet appeared. For example, on the first day after suspected infection, the tests were negative in 100 percent of the cases examined, researchers found, even though the patients were demonstrably infected. Therefore, the optimal time for sampling is the eighth day after infection. On average, the chance of getting a false negative result was greater than one in five
  • It is also known that as the infection progresses, the pathogen load in the throat decreases again. Even in these cases, a test can possibly give a false negative result. This means that the person concerned is not infected according to the test result, although he or she is carrying the virus
  • Correct sampling is also crucial. For a result to be as reliable as possible, a smear must be taken deep from the throat or nose, and the procedure is, of course, unpleasant

As the test is only a snapshot, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for public health recommends a second PCR test for typical symptoms in order to rule out infection as far as possible.

“If people want to go on vacation and need such a test, they must be aware of this,” Susanne Pfefferle from the University Hospital of Eppendorf told Spiegel. “So it is essential that they adhere to all applicable protective and safety measures.”

In Germany, the following also continues to apply: if you have contact with a confirmed infected person, you must tell the authorities, remain in quarantine and you're not allowed to travel.

Is a PCR test even possible in 48 hours?

The evaluation of the test is comparatively quick; in the best case, a lab only needs a few hours. However, there's also the time it takes to get the sample, sending it to the lab reporting the result and travelling to the holiday resort.

People take a dip in the water to cool off in the Eylersee lake on the Lower Rhine on June 25th. Photo: DPA

Anyone affected should talk to their doctor beforehand about when a result can be expected.

Who pays for the test?

In the districts of Gütersloh and Warendorf, anyone can be tested for coronavirus infection free of charge. This mass testing is being undertaken to find out whether the virus has spread beyond the Tönnies meat factory.

So far, health insurance companies have usually only covered the costs of a test if there is good reason, such as if a person has come into contact with someone who has coronavirus or they have symptoms.

Companies are unlikely to cover the costs of a test for a holiday trip.

Holidaymakers heading to Vorpommern-Greifswald in north-east Germany from high risk areas, for example, can have themselves tested at their own expense in the region while they wait in isolation for the results. It costs about €150.

So will this set a blueprint for future travel?

A PCR test is only a snapshot and cannot always detect an infection of coronavirus Sars-CoV-2. And even if you can present a negative test, it could be difficult to get one in the time frame just before you travel.

However, mass testing is undoubtely helping Germany in the fight to control the spread of coronavirus and authorities have said they want to continue to increase the availability of testing.

As regions reopen for tourism, the risk of coronavirus spreading increases, and that can't be avoided. We'll have to wait and see how German authorities handle the coming months as more people travel and localised outbreaks occur. And at this stage it's unclear whether testing before travel will become more common.


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